Student government-led task force to review paper at Wichita State

KANSAS -- The student newspaper at Wichita State University will not receive funds until a student government-commissioned task force completes a review of the publication.

The university student newspaper, The Sunflower News, on March 26 received a proposed budget for the 2009 fiscal year from the Student Fees committee. The committee allocates funds for student organizations and programs.

The Student Fees committee is a seven-member panel composed of two administrators and five students. All of the students are either members of SGA or appointed by SGA.

Todd Vogts, editor in chief of The Sunflower, said he received the budget the same day the task force proposal, which had to be approved by the Student Government Association, was to be discussed in a student government meeting. Vogts said the paper had no notice of the proposed review, but said he and other staff members were questioned about the content and operations of the newspaper on March 13 by Ron Kopita, the Student Fees committee chairman and the school's vice president for campus life and university relations.

"We thought it was weird, but we didn't think it was anything serious," Vogts said.

The Sunflower receives nearly half of its funds from student government fees.

According to Vogts, an hour before the meeting he received a document from SGA adviser Cheryl Adams outlining the rationale behind the proposed review of the paper's operations.

The committee's concerns included inaccurate reporting, presenting opinion pieces as though they were news stories and advertising other universities. The committee also said they had concerns over The Sunflower's operations and cited "lack of compliance with professional standards" and that "no one is verifying authenticity of material."

The document stated that the committee intended to withhold funds until Kopita appoints a task force to "review Sunflower operations and make recommendations for improvement" and the committee approves the recommendations from the task force.

Vogts said no one has informed the paper what the process entails or whether the recommendations will be binding upon the paper.

Kopita said he does not anticipate requirements being placed on the paper in order for it to receive funding this year. He said the task force and Student Fees committee probably will complete the review before October, when the newspaper would normally receive its funds for the 2009 fiscal year.

"Even though they say they will be done by October we don't know they will," said Robbie Norton, business manager for The Sunflower.

Norton said the paper was looking at ways to cut costs, including not purchasing equipment and not attending a conference staffers usually go to in October.

Kopita said the Student Fees committee was responding to concerns by students about the quality of journalism at The Sunflower.

"I understand there have been mistakes. It is a student newspaper, there are bound to be," Norton said.

Norton said if mistakes are made a correction is printed in the next issue, and there are internal processes to deal with inaccurate or misleading reporting.

Kopita said the situation with The Sunflower has been "bubbling for the past several years," and did not believe any specific incident prompted the committee to commission a review of the paper.

The newspaper has a different perspective.

"We think this is a violation of our First Amendment right and a form of soft censorship by withholding our funds in limbo," Vogts said. "People don't understand what we are trying to do as a free press by trampling upon our rights as journalists."

Kopita said the administration is not leading the initiative for review and that it mainly came from student members of the committee. Kopita also said final decisions regarding the use of student fees are made by university president Donald Beggs, who has the power to veto any attempt to cut off funding to the Sunflower.

Student Government Association President Allie Crouse referred the Student Press Law Center to Kopita. The SPLC was unable to reach any other members of the SGA.

Kansas, news, The Sunflower News, Wichita State University